In the federal prison system, Alcatraz was the bad cop; McNeil Island was the good cop.
The San Francisco prison had the guards with tommy guns, the no-talking rules, the force-feeding and the infamous “hole” for solitary confinement.
McNeil – which is closing Friday because of budget cuts – was 700 miles north in ethereally beautiful Puget Sound. With its views of Mount Rainier and eagles soaring overhead, it was the fed’s “prison without walls,” a place where, if a man obeyed the rules and worked hard, he could learn a trade, improve his mind and become a useful member of society.
“We believe that the men have been punished by the court,” said Fred Wilkinson, McNeil’s superintendent from 1950 to 1954 and later a leader in the national Federal Prison Industries Program.
“They came here as punishment,” Wilkinson said, “not for punishment.”
Not all wardens at McNeil were so optimistic about reforming criminals. Hard-liners in the system derisively referred to Wilkinson as “Friendly Fred.”
But generally speaking, throughout McNeil Island’s 135-year history – including the years since 1981, when it’s been run by Washington state – the prison has maintained a kinder, gentler approach, one based on the belief that hard work and nurturing the inner man can reduce recidivism.
When the prison closes, that will be its legacy: that criminal justice is about rehabilitation, not retribution.
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